On October 10, award winning German novelist, Jenny Erpenbeck spoke at Princeton University about her new book, Go, Went, Gone, in a Belknap Global Conversation with Deborah Amos, Ferris Professor of Journalism. The book explores the fate of African refugees in Berlin and was described in the New Yorker as “a magnificent novel…about the central moral question of our time.”
After the talk, Erpenbeck spoke to student Ashley Scott ’21 about how she started her career as an opera director and came to writing one of Germany’s most acclaimed books of the year.
Ashley Scott: How did you become an opera director and what was your path to becoming a writer?
Jenny Erpenbeck: Almost everyone in my family is or was a writer. It starts with my grandparents from my father’s side, and my father, and my mother was a literary translator. Everyone was sitting at a desk writing. As a child, I thought that writing must have been something very boring so I tried to do something else to escape from the destiny of being a family member. Still, I loved writing and reading. I also played the piano and sang with a church choir. I loved singing and I became interested in opera. I actually wanted to study stage and costume design, but I was required to spend one year as an apprentice at an opera house. The only position I got was as a prop manager.
One day, there was a rehearsal, but the pianist couldn’t be there. The director knew that I could play the piano well so after hearing me play, she told me that I could study opera directing like she had done. After I completed my studies, I couldn’t find a job as an opera director. Actually, I couldn’t find a job at all so I wrote my first book — without knowing that it would be my first book. Then I got a job as an assistant director in Vienna; three years later they invited me to direct my own production of Hansel and Gretel. In fact, the man who is now my husband was the conductor of the orchestra. I directed about fifteen productions here and there in Austria and Germany from Handel to Mozart to Monteverdi. I was very happy.
Then, for some reason I decided to send a manuscript to a publishing house as a test to see if they would accept me. I sent it to twelve publishing houses and eleven said, “No, thank you.” The one that invited me later became my publishing house. I pulled that old manuscript from my desk drawer where it had been waiting for two or three years. The publisher’s said, “Ah! That manuscript is perfect! We’ll use that one.” From there, I slowly switched to writing full time.
AS: Why did you choose to write about African Refugees?
JE: At the time that I started to do the research, the refugees that were visible were mostly Africans. There were some Afghan people, too. The wave of Syrian refugees only came after my book had been published. I became interested in the refugee situation in 2013 when I heard about a boat capsizing in the Mediterranean and so many people drowned. After that, I thought “Ok, someone has to take his or her time to really encounter the people who are already in our cities but nobody looks at them.” I was interested in who they were and that they were living in the same moment as I did, but in a completely different world. So, it was like different layers of reality. I was also interested in how they dealt with this mountain of time that was almost thrown on their heads. I have always been interested in the question of time. Also in exploring what biography means, what identity means. I was interested in where they came from and how they looked at my world. I was interested in the history, the culture, and the experiences that they carried with them and how all of these things turned my reality into something else.
AS: What are your thoughts on the status of refugees around the world, in the European Union, and in Germany?
JE: I don’t believe in borders. And as anyone can see now very clearly, there are big movements everywhere and there are so many refugees everywhere. Of course, in the age of globalization, everyone, no matter how far away, can see how wealthy Westerners are living. People don’t just see the information and think “I am happily starving while the others have everything.” Things are in motion, but I think it’s a process that will take a few hundred years. Of course, you can try to keep the wealthiness [sic] by putting up a wall; then you will have two classes of human beings: the ones who are allowed to live and the ones who are not allowed to live. The things that we all have in common are enjoying life, the will to survive, making our children happy, and so on. I believe in the equality of all people. In my experience, it is always worth it to stay open to other systems of thinking and other ways of looking at the world. I don’t believe that people should just say, “We here in the West have made clear how the world works and it cannot be any other way.” There are so many places where you can learn something, it’s not just Princeton. I have met so many young me — about 20 or 22 — who know so much more than I do. I believe in the encounter of people.
AS: Why did you choose to use different languages in your novel?
JE: So, I spoke to most of the refugees in English and to some of them in Italian. In the German edition of my novel, I translated all of their English and Italian and all of my English and Italian into German, because I wanted to make it easily understandable. By that I mean that I would translate their and my “bad” English into clear German. I wanted to capture the essence of what they were sharing. And, from time to time to remind the reader of the language we were using and to express difficult ideas across languages, I would add a short phrase or sentence in the original language. I did this to bring a bit of color into the book. Still, I only did this in passages where the message was already clear and adding something in a different language wouldn’t confuse the reader. It was particularly difficult for my translator who had to take the African English that I had translated into German and translate into “good” English.
AS: Why did you reference classical texts and, more specifically, why did you write Richard as a classicist?
JE: At first, I thought that he might be a professor from the German department. But, I really wanted to include Ovid and Metamorphosis and the connection to the Odyssey. And I also liked the idea of describe the refugees as the group of the gods. I wanted to show that if you read the classics seriously, they are deeply human. It’s not just that I am reading Homer because I’m studying at Princeton. Rather, they are good stories, well written, they are strong, and they are a treasure of life experience. At this point, it is easy to connect them to the stories of the refugees. Although people may forget that the poor, raggedly-dressed refugee may have the same experience as the gods or the Ancient Greeks of the Odyssey. Actually, I really like Metamorphosis. I never read it from beginning to end, I always just open it and started reading. It is worth reading them again and again. They are good stories.
AS: Finally, what question would you ask if you were in my position?
JE: I would ask what you thought about my use of the word “black.” I have heard some feedback that people think that it brings out the “other,” but I don’t think I could write without describing it. I believe that the first step is to describe or to try to describe and the next step is to ask, “Should it be like this?” or “Can I change this?” or “Is it worth being changed?” and so on. For example, the Africans are stopped and checked much more often in the subway. Their skin is their passport. There is no chance to escape from their skin. And if I cannot write that they are stopped more often because of their skin color, then I cannot tell the story. And, ok, yes, talking about the “other” can lead to racism, but it can also be the beginning of a friendship. It all has to do with how you deal with it.
Go, Went, Gone (New Directions) is translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.